You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Fascist Opening Ceremony


While I was as wowed by China’s opening cermony for the Olympics as the rest of the word was,

I was struck by how much it reminded me of the film Hero and its fascist imagery.


Only a few days later did i find out that Hero director Zhang Yimou directed the ceremonies.

I wanted to do a little “Hero or Opening Ceremonies?” photo-guessing game but either my web connection or my computer has slowed to speeds that make such a photo-finding mission unpalatable. So this taste will have to do.

The End of Silverdocs, the End of the World

I was on the programming committee for Silverdocs this year, which has made the question of blogging a bit confusing for me—how do you review an event that you had a hand in creating? My answer for now is to review just those films I hadn’t yet seen in the programming process, those I did not vote on.

One of which was Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, in which the director continues on the path of the aging artist who no longer has patience for subtlety and now spells out his ideas for you in plain English. Or with a brick over the head. Back in 1971 Herzog made Land of Silence & Darkness, which is about people who are both deaf and blind, and I still think about the scene where the camera just sits, and sits, and watches a deaf-blind woman as she sits on her bed. The silence, to use a cliche AND pun, is deafening, as we watch her and ponder, where *is* she?

In some later films, as his patience wears thin, Herzog’s camera will linger on a person’s face, but in voiceover he’ll *tell* you what he thinks that person is thinking. And in Encounters at the End of the World, in which Herzog travels to Antarctica to photograph the breathtaking ‘ecstatic imagery’ of the landscape and interview its odd inhabitants, all tact is lost and he moves to damping down the sound while a subject is talking and coming on in voiceover to paraphrase and interpret what the subject is saying as he says it. At least he’s not hiding anymore the fact that he often invents scenarios in his “documentaries”; it’s almost as if he’s making a joke out of it. He does it twice in the film and the audience got a hearty laugh out of it. Much of the film is funny, in fact, which is another, more refreshing trait that has emerged in Herzog’s films as he ages. Most of his early films were deadly dramatic and bombastic, but he seems to have embraced the knowledge that enlightenment means lightening up (to quote that mad genius in his own mind, Mike Myers). In interviews he has always been hilarious while at the same time poetic and thought-provoking, and his films now embody that as well.

And nothing is funnier than the exchange in the film between Herzog and a scientist who studies and lives with penguins. “Can a penguin go crazy?” he asks the laconic man. And he clarifies, “I don’t mean that a penguin will suddenly think he’s Napoelon, but do penguins ever just get fed up with their colonies and leave?” And what follows is the most poignant sequence in the film, a film he vowed in voiceover would not be “another penguin film.” We watch a line of penguins waddling toward the sea in the distance, while one stops and seems confused for a moment, and then begins wandering off alone on a path toward the mountains, and as Herzog points out, toward certain death.

The parallel to humans is obvious, as Herzog has throughout the film (and indeed, throughout his career) been interrogating the various weirdos and “castoffs” who inhabit such an inhospitable place. And I think in his youth Herzog would have let that point make itself.

Silverdocs: Dust

A funny thing happened in the screening of Dust, a German film about the infinitesimal particles that we consider insignificant yet battle daily, in futility, to get rid of. I had high hopes for the film, as it seems there is such poetic possibility in this tiny disregarded stuff that is much stronger than us, more ubiquitous, and ultimately even lethal. When the film started, the projectionist had the wrong aspect ratio so the bottom portion of the film was cut off, leaving us able to see only about half the subtitles. We all sat for about 10 minutes wondering what the hell we were watching—we only got about every third sentence, and even then it was just a partial sentence, leaving me puzzled as to whether the film was so poetic I just didn’t get it or if something was missing. After I checked with the theater manager and they resolved the problem, I was glad to see that even with full sentences, the film does attempt poetry, and inspires thought—the images of the obsessive-compulsive housewife wiping down everything in her home, even the inside of her television, in a battle against dust; images of terrifying dust storms about to swallow whole towns in Oklahoma in the 1910s; and the image above, part of a sequence showing the impossibility of ridding the floor of all traces of a pile of red dust. These tiny particles seem to rule the world, even the universe, the film points out. But despite the Godardian narration, which constantly brought to mind the coffee cup scene in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, unfortunately the film is rather heavy-handed at times, forcibly making and repeating its philosophical points and pounding some of the film’s mystery—yes, I’ll say it—into dust. And it didn’t help that some of the more scientific explanations were too technical to be understood by the layperson, or perhaps just too dryly presented, and dragged on way too long. Overall the film provided plenty of food for thought, and I admire the effort and the intention, but would have preferred a bit more mystery.

Silverdocs: Head Wind


Leave it to me to get teary-eyed from a film about Iranians installing illegal Satellite TV dishes. But near the end of this film, which takes an often humorous approach to the proliferation of foreign TV programs and internet access in Iran despite the government’s tireless efforts to prevent it, two of the film’s subjects offer plaintive cries about the way the government’s restrictions are stifling their thoughts, their dreams, their desires. One is a former journalist whose paper was shut down by the government, who now operates a roadside tea stand where he offers free newspapers to his clientele, and the other is an underground rock musician who dreams of playing his music “above ground”, where he can be heard and not have to hide in a hole. The musician says he will continue playing underground, because such agitation, even if futile, is better than apathy. He will continue to play in opposition to the govenment’s plan to separate the people from their desires. (Sniff, sniff.) And the journalist searches the Internet every day for news from around the world, even though most sites he visits are blocked by the government days after he finds them. But he persists, saying that it helps him to still feel like a journalist, and not just a former one.

And yet, the film is not so simplistic as to claim that access to media will cure everything. We see families (who have illegal Satellite dishes installed) eating dinner around a TV set, staring trance-like at images of Christina Ricci and Hugh Jackman and not interacting with one another. And the very image of the technology itself—the crude dishes, the old TV sets, the antennae boosters—is ugly, marring the gorgeous Iranian mountainside.

But there are moments of transcendence. A man riding a donkey down a hill sings at the top of his lungs, as the film cuts to a television set showing a music video for the song he’s singing, offering us the source of the man’s inspiration, his dreams.

It’s Silverdocs Time Again

bf…and I’ll be there. I had the pleasure of previewing some shorts for the festival, the highlight of which is the newest from Jay Rosenblatt, the man who had me bawling my eyes out in the sheep-shearing scene of his Phantom Limb a couple years back at Silverdocs. We also studied a few of his films in my grad school classes, and images from the highly intense Smell of Burning Ants is still burned into my brain. This year’s offering is Beginning Filmmaking, in which he tries, and struggles, to teach his 4-year-old daughter Ella how to make a film. This is a very different film than his others, as it consists entirely of home-movie footage of Rosenblatt himself grappling with a child who clearly has her mind on other things. “I wanna make a movie about me eating a lot of candy,” she proclaims when her dad gives her a camera for her birthday. At every turn Rosenblatt tries to impart his wisdom about camera angles and focus, but Ella more often than not would rather be thinking about fairies. As Rosenblatt gets increasingly frustrated the film seems to transcend its ostensible subject of a father-daughter or teacher-student relationship and becomes a portrait of a man trying desperately to control the uncontrollable. “Listen to me.” “Sit down.” “Pay attention.” “Don’t lick the screen…” and on and on; in one scene the camera even chases Ella down the hallway as she runs from her father. In every scene Ella seems to outsmart her dad, or at least slip from his grasp. “Now, what does focus mean?” he asks her. “I’m out of focus…” she says, crunching on an apple. “What is light?” he asks. She touches his arm very lightly with her fingertip, whispering “this is light.” I stopped thinking of her as his daughter, or even as a child, and began seeing it as the monumental and ultimately futile struggle of head trying to control heart.

Another lovely little short is Shikashika, a dialogue-free film about the process of making Shikashika, or shaved ice treats. The film follows a Peruvian family whose business is selling shaved ice at a weekly market. Each week the entire family climbs a mountain in the Andes, hacks out a large chunk of ice, straps it to a donkey’s back and brings it back down the mountain, and takes it to market, where mom shaves bits off and douses them with sweet fruity syrup for eager customers. With beautiful cinematography, a lyrical structure, a happy family, and the gorgeous Andes, the film, like the shaved ice, is saturated with color.

Stay tuned for the next post, with a few more shorts and a profile of the features I’m looking forward to…

Where Has the Year Gone?

I don’t know but I didn’t think you’d be interested in hearing detailed fangirl analysis of my latest obsession:


So I haven’t blogged much. But expect a Silverdocs preview coming soon…

Jay McCarroll in Boston

I’ll be heading up to Boston this week for IFFBoston, where they’ll be screening the doc about Jay McCarroll, Eleven Minutes. I love Jay McCarroll. I wish I could be his friend. For a teaser here’s a snip of an interview with him that had me laughing out loud. They are discussing the reality show So You Think You Can Dance:

Q: I don’t watch that one.
A: Not to be confused with Dancing with the Stars or America’s Dance Crew, or Dance on your Own Grave. That’s the one where you kill yourself and dance on your own grave.




lights 003.jpg
Still standing.


Bit of D.C. subway graffiti


Silver Spring at night.

Oscar Night

As I am out in the boonies, I will be watching the Oscars at home and attending Greencine’s liveblogging of the event, which will include commentary from the lovely Filmbrain and Agnes Varnum, two bloggies I have actually met in person.

Amen Wiseman

from an interview with Fred Wiseman about his new film State Legislature:

NYMAG: People say that we’re living in a time of resurgence for documentaries, but it seems to us that most of the documentaries coming out are designed to prove some political point.

WISEMAN: Yes, they’re ideological movies. They have a political point of attack. They’re very different from what I’m doing. What’s taking place in documentaries doesn’t interest me at all. I’ve found that things are more complicated than even I assume they are when I start. And I hate the idea of simplifying material for political purpose.

#1 (Again)


New year, new picture of the day. I’m waking up.

Political Break

“Hillary is the ultimate in venal, ambitious, unscrupulous, Machievellian, power-mad politicos, and that is why the Dowbrigade is supporting her in this ill-fated race. The last two girly-men the Demos put up got their lunch money stolen on the way to school, and the country has been paying dearly ever since.

Maybe its time for a manly-girl who knows how to fight dirty and get even.”


There Will Be Blood: Sorry, But…No

After seeing There Will Be Blood, and thinking about it a bit, I said that Paul Thomas Anderson was the false prophet Eli Sunday and those raving about his film are Eli’s sheep. It’s certainly a gorgeous film, an epic one, a mammothly forceful and visceral one, I’ll give him that. But ultimately is anything being said? I see nothing more than was said in Citizen Kane ages ago, or Chinatown, or 2001, all of which the film heavily borrows from visually. I’ve seen it said many times that this film is doing something new, but can anyone explain to me what exactly that is? I see a film student’s orgasm of references and allusion, but little else, and ultimately an empty core. Elusive Lucidity said it so perfectly:

… I’m not convinced the film is more than half-baked, conceptually and thematically, and I feel as though Anderson were really sure of how he wanted to say something meaningful but spent less time on the meaning that supplied that … meaningfulness. To be clear: I’m not lodging a “style over substance” complaint, exactly, but rather suggesting that PTA knows only partly what he wants to say, and knows perhaps way too well how he wants to say it. I’m pretty convinced that Anderson is an artist who wants to Say Something; less convinced that he’s accomplished at following through on those very terms. Perhaps it’s a case of “we can spot our own”–when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease. Paul Thomas Anderson sometimes strikes me as someone who never entirely grew out of this stage–the need to tell truths but the rush to sometimes not think them through–and via charisma as well as intelligence & talent, gets away with it.

And another great bit from Long Pauses:

… that’s where the greatest strengths of There Will Be Blood lie — the two hours of screen time enjoyed by Daniel Day-Lewis, whose acting is stagey and theatrical in an Elia Kazan-ish way but whose sunburned face, stooped shoulders, and bum knee give Plainview more life than he maybe deserves… Anderson isn’t a contemplative filmmaker. He’s downright bombastic — never happier than when emotions are red-lined, music a-blaring, camera swinging at a frenzy. …Anderson is so good at those scenes, so gifted as a manipulator of our emotions and allegiances, that we overlook the banality and senselessness of the drama. What a fascinating mess of a movie.

Hear hear. When I see any of Anderson’s films I see an immature film student who adores art films but doesn’t really understand them and thinks throwing a bunch of ponderous/difficult/conflicting stuff up on the screen in gorgeous images amounts to something meaningful. And what disappoints me is that few film geeks ever agree with this, but go on with their orgy of trying to pry some meaning out of his films (it’s about capitalism vs. religion! a religious allegory! an allegory for bush! blech blech blech…) and falling right into his giggling schoolboy trap.

Much as many do with the other mammoth fraud out there now, Juno. See post below.

UPDATE: Also wanted to link a podcast on the subject from some like-minded people over at Steady Diet of Film. One of them says something I have thought many times—many critics who say they love this film say they are speechless, dumbfounded, don’t know what to say…implying that it’s because the film’s so powerful, but in my opinion, it’s because there’s just nothing to say. There’s nothing to be wrung from the film, it’s just a virtuoso Daniel Day Lewis flexing his ample acting muscle, no more no less.

And that milkshake metaphor is bullshit. PT Anderson does not understand metaphor. I’m posting here a comment I made over at Chuck’s blog:

“…from what i recall, in the context of the oil business, daniel plainview is saying he’s pumping oil out from all of the land around that one plot, and because it’s just one big sea of oil down there, he doesn’t need that one plot–it’ll get sucked up along with the rest. the milkshake metaphor, visually, doesn’t actually work for that at all. what’s actually happening is that it’s one giant milkshake all connected, not two separate ones and i’m putting my straw into yours. he’s saying he doesn’t need a straw, basically. my 12 other straws will drain you on their own.”

Juno Addendum

Ok one more thing that sticks in my craw about Juno is that one of the adjectives used in nearly every review of the film and/or interview with screenwriter Diablo Cody is that it’s so “original,” yet, I can spot at least one joke that was stolen nearly word for word from a Mike Myers movie. The line about not being attracted to a girl because she “smells like soup” is wholly lifted from So I Married an Axe Murderer—not even a good Mike Myers movie, but a lesser-known one, so clearly more ‘indie’—someone asks Myers why he’s not into a certain girl and he says “She smelled like soup. She smelled exactly like beef vegetable soup.” And that was what, 10 years ago? 15? That’s plagiarism, baby!

And I’m sure there are many other examples in Juno whose references I just don’t get. Cody has admitted to being a voracious consumer of pop culture and this movie is more a collection of obscure references/thefts than something that sprang sparkling and original from her brain. She’s more an encyclopedia than a creative genius. And it’s more evidence that her writing seriously needs an editing, that she needs to deepen and mature as a writer and learn some control.

Ugh what am I Nanny McScreenwriter? I guess my former writing-teacher training still guides me. I like Diablo Cody. I really do. I’m only pointing this out because there seem to be so many morons out there who are allowing themselves to be fooled, gushing over what is essentially a promising but very rough first draft of a screenplay.


So I’m really late to the party on this one. My head has been in a hole or something.

I was listening to NPR recently and Terri Gross introduced an interview with the director and writer of Juno, a film I had no plans to see based on the painstakingly quirky promos for the film. But when Terri mentioned the writer’s name–Diablo Cody–I did a double-take and said wait, where do I know that name from? Then she introduced Cody as being a former blog-writer, her former blog being that of her life as a stripper. And ding! I remembered her. I used to read her blog every day, back in the day. She was a full-on peep show girl as I recall, performing for peepers. PussyRanch, her blog was called, and she had what seemed a strangely…wholesome? attitude about it. Straightforward, unabashed, unconflicted, even cheery. Indeed, so do all of the characters in Juno, with regard to teen pregnancy. Depth and complexity is clearly not Ms. Cody’s strong suit. But hey, it’s a comedy, right?

Anyway after learning who was the writer I was slightly more interested in seeing the film (though only slightly–she uses a burgerphone for chrisssakes), to see what this blogger I used to follow is now up to. I recall that her blog-writing was always a bit irritating in the same way as the film’s dialogue–showoffy, incapable of speaking plainly; ‘more is more’ is definitely Cody’s word-choice strategy. (From Reverse Shot: “It reminds me of Kingsley Amis’s criticism of his son Martin’s prose: “I think you need more sentences like ‘He put down his drink, got up, and left the room.’”)

But seeking solace from holiday family meltdowns the other day, I ducked into the AFI theater for a matinee of Juno. I didn’t plan to see it, but Sweeney Todd wasn’t screening for another 2 hours so Juno it was.

And the film was pretty much as I expected, though not quite as irritating as I’d feared. The dialogue was definitely too much, and Cody suffers from the Seinfeld syndrome of making every character speak exactly the same way. The quirkiniess wouldn’t have been so irritating if it were limited to only the character of Juno, but no, Ms. Cody can’t control herself and every other character in the film speaks in the same patterns–her dad, her friends, the store clerk that sells her the pregnancy test. Apparently no one in this town is familiar with verbal restraint.

Also a bit irritating is that the film seems to have hoodwinked a lot of people, selling itself as different or “alternative” when in fact it’s a quite wholesome feel-gooder and even a fairly conservative film. It’s Jimmy Stewart dressed in Chuck Taylors and a hoodie.

“For all its posturing as a take-no-guff whippersnapper, “Juno” is finally a square, predictable crowd-pleaser, timid on politics and reaffirming on family. Juno is identified as oddball and independent (she obnoxiously uses pipes as affectations and enjoys mentioning her plastic hamburger phone, and Bleeker’s mom pointedly says, as if to confirm it for the audience, “She’s just . . . different”), but she’s not much more interesting than your average big-screen high-schooler, and when she has questions about life and love, she goes to wise papa (JK Simmons), “Brady Bunch”-style. Is this seriously supposed to be different from Hollywood teen movies simply because it’s not about cheerleaders?”

She does, after all, get convinced by an abortion protester to keep her baby. But that’s kind of a cheap shot–is every teenager who doesn’t abort and gives her kid up for adoption in bed with the right wingers? Is abortion the only liberal route? It’s supposed to be about choice, not mandatory abortions for all, right? And in some ways the film is actually a bit subversive–the complete absence of shame, for example. Juno’s not happy about the pregnancy but she’s not going to hide in a hole and flagellate herself, either. No one in her town save the (narrative prop of a) ultrasound technician shows much judgement toward her at all. That’s not the American way. And it’s certainly not the Christian Right way. She also ultimately gives the child to a single, divorced woman to raise–Cody didn’t write a reconciliation into the couple’s ending in order to preserve conservative family values.

In the end the film is neither conservative nor progressive, but apolitical–life is messy and Juno makes decisions based on gut feelings, moment to moment, outside any overarching political agendas. Individual autonomy/expression is the guiding light here…it’s Jimmy Stewart in Chuck Taylors and a hoodie, after all.

At the BU Haneke Conference

Two professors’ descriptions of their first encounters with a Michael Haneke film:

“It was the first time in my life I have ever been existentially afraid.”

“Until 3 weeks ago I had never seen a Haneke film. I was asked to be a respondant six months ago, and agreed, but have been afraid. After seeing his films, I realized I was right to be afraid.”

Good Stuff

excerpt from evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. An army man noting his loss of love for his occupation:

…as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster. I knew it all, the whole drab compass of marital disillusion; we had been through it together, the Army and I, from the first importunate courtship until now, when nothing remained to us except the chill bonds of law and duty and custom. I had played every scene in the domestic tragedy, had found the early tiffs become more frequent, the tears less affecting, the reconciliations less sweet, till they engendered a mood of aloofness and cool criticism, and the growing conviction that it was not myself but the loved one who was at fault. I caught the false notes in her voice and learned to listen for them apprehensively; I recognized the blank, resentful stare of incomprehension in her eyes, and the selfish, hard set of the corners of her mouth. I learned her, as one must learn a woman one has kept house with, day in, day out, for three and a half years; I learned her slatternly ways, the routine and mechanism of her charm, her jealousy and self-seeking, and her nervous trick with the fingers when she was lying. She was stripped of all enchantment now and I knew her for an uncongenial stranger to whom I had bound myself indissolubly in a moment of folly.

« Previous PageNext Page »